Black Swan Farming

Cameras and the job to be done

I used to be a bit obsessive about my Single Lens Reflex camera. I spent a lot of money buying glass for what is really just a fancy box with a hole in it. For many years the photosensitive surface inside was a combination of chemicals with various sensitivities to brightness and colour, but for the last decade this has been light-sensitive electronic components, rendering the world around me in zeros and ones.

Now though, I’m almost exclusively using the phone in my pocket. The “job to be done” (for me) goes beyond simply capturing a moment, what I see in front of me, for later viewing. It has always been to share an image of that moment with others. The mechanism for sharing has changed over the years. It used to be a handful of pictures shared infrequently via prints in albums and picture frames, to cards and calendars. In recent years, increased geographical distance between family members and then the appearance of small people, the handful has become a hard-drive full, with far greater frequency.

In effect, my usage has changed, largely thanks to the computer/camera/internet-connection in my pocket. This first started when I simply emailed terrible quality pictures from my Palm Treo 600. I loved that phone. Since then, the image quality has improved dramatically, but I think the biggest advance that really changed the game was going from GPRS to 3G.

Not only is the end-to-end speed much faster, but the phone in my pocket is also more convenient. Other than when I am out surfing, I pretty much always have my phone with me. Having a half decent “snapshot” device that is connected to the Internet always with me means I use it far more.

My father has just picked up a brand new Pentax K3, which he is completely delighted with. He would ban smartphone photography if he could. At this point, though, I can’t see myself buying another SLR camera. Sure, I of course miss the depth of field control of a camera that has glass bright enough to force focus on the object — but this is no longer enough for me personally to justify the tradeoffs. I still have my expensive box with a hole in it, and the 50mm prime lens is still attached, but I have no idea if there is any life left in the batteries as it’s been ages since I picked it up.

This is the result of the constant march of incremental innovation. The jobs are the same, but the speed and efficiency means we may well do them more often. More worryingly for the incumbents is that the “not yet good enough” will slowly but surely become perfectly acceptable to not just an edge case, but the majority. The new entrants often come from a completely different industry and with a product that starts out serving use cases where it is a useful hack. Overtime though, it becomes more and more useful, including new ways of doing the same job and eventually supplants the old way.